The contribution of John Innes Centre scientists to improving one of the world major crops highlights the impact of publicly-funded fundamental research decades ago on people’s lives today – and shows the benefit of today’s research for future generations.

“Wheat genetics research in the UK”, published by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), describes a shift in overall wheat production in the UK of 2.5 tonnes per hectare in 1940 to more than 8 tonnes per hectare today.

The report explains that JIC scientists’ understanding and application of the complex genetics of wheat, the subsequent development of new varieties and the introduction of better farming practices has either directly or indirectly led to most of the major advances in production in the UK.

Wheat makes up 20% of the calories consumed by people across the world – with predicted rise in population from 6billion people today to 9billion by 2050, changing land use and adaptation to climate change, increasing wheat yields are seen as key areas by both the John Innes Centre and BBSRC which provides strategic funding to the institute.

The report describes BBSRC-funded research carried out by JIC senior scientist Professor Graham Moore (pictured) on ‘synteny’ – being able to identify a gene in an organism with a large genome such as wheat by first locating it in an organism with a smaller one, like rice. As the rice genome is smaller than that of wheat, it is quicker to identify a gene in rice and look for the same gene in wheat than it is to first examine the larger wheat genome.

Prof Moore demonstrated synteny between rice and wheat 20 years ago, using the early genetic maps of wheat developed by JIC colleague Professor Mike Gale and Japanese collaborators working on rice.

A decade earlier, Professor Dick Flavell, of the Plant Breeding Institute – which merged with the John Innes Institute and the Nitrogen Fixation Laboratory to form the John Innes Centre – became the first researcher anywhere in the world to clone plant DNA, which happened to be wheat DNA.

Thanks to Prof Moore’s research, synteny has been at the heart of wheat breeding and genetics research around the world – the identification of rust resistance in wheat, the discovery of wheat genes for high grain protein and the identification of wheat genes which determine a plant’s ability to flower in spring were all made possible due to synteny.

Prof Moore also used the concept of synteny to study an important gene called Ph1, which regulates reproduction in plants. Ph1 prevents wild wheat varieties breeding with elite wheats, making it difficult for breeders to introduce traits such as disease resistance to new elite lines. Research on this trait started in the 1950s, when PBI scientist Sir Ralph Riley recognised that Ph1 was preventing the crosses. Sir Ralph went on to use his knowledge to introduce resistance in wheat to the Yellow Rust fungus, which is a major problem for growers.

In a BBSRC-funded study which started in the 1980s, Prof Moore and colleagues found genetic sequences next to the Ph1 gene in a grass called Brachypodium, which has a small genome, and used synteny to find the same sequence in wheat. Building on this knowledge, they showed that okadaic acid could mimic the effect of deleting Ph1, allowing the cross of wild and elite wheats and transfer of important traits. Based on their work, BBSRC funded a wheat pre-breeding programme in 2012 for further advances using Prof Moore’s work.

Researchers at PBI and, later, the John Innes Centre also identified the Rht1 gene responsible for the so-called Green Revolution of the 1940s to 1970s. The expression of the Rht1 gene is responsible for reducing the height of wheat crops, meaning that the plant’s energy is used for growing wheat grain rather than stalk resulting in a higher grain yield.

PBI breeders used conventional breeding in the 1960s to develop new wheat lines showing the Rht characteristic which are now in use in UK wheat production and worth £75m to the economy each year.

Further work on the Rht1 gene was led by JIC scientist Professor Nick Harberd in the 1990s – he and colleagues successfully located an equivalent gene in the model grass species Arabidopsis and in maize. They discovered how the natural mutation in the gene had led to the appearance of the short stalks, and also identified nearby ‘marker’ genes which are easier for breeders to select for plants with the Rht1 trait.

John Innes Centre scientists have also been researching the genetics of flowering time, and how plants respond to environmental cues like day length. The research has taken place over the last 30 years, initially by Professor Colin Law and colleagues at PBI, leading on to studies by JIC scientist Dr David Laurie. Their understanding means plant breeders can control flowering time and develop new varieties which can adapt to climate change.

The bread-making qualities of wheat have also been the subject of studies at PBI and at JIC. Good bread-making dough depends on the two component proteins of gluten – gliadins and glutenins. Before the Second World War, most of the UK’s bread-making wheat was imported from the USA and Canada, where varieties were rich in gluten proteins. Research and the development of UK wheat with optimal gluten levels has led to 4.5m tonnes of bread wheat grown in the UK today. This was made possible due to the work of PBI scientists Dr Peter Payne, Professor Colin Law and Professor Dick Flavell in the 1970s and 1980s, leading to work at Rothamsted Research.

As can be seen, investment in fundamental research has led to wide-ranging benefits to the UK economy and UK society. Research takes time, with many of the developments taking place over at least 30 years. The John Innes Centre continues to receive funding from the BBSRC which enables this strategic research to take place.

Today, scientists at JIC continue to understand the genetics of wheat and are working towards future developments. For example, Professor John Snape developed approaches for genetically dissecting more complex traits in wheat, which are controlled by multiple genes. Prof Snape began applying these approaches to dissect the genetics of yield in wheat. Dr Simon Griffiths and Dr Cristobal Uauy (pictured) are exploiting and extending these developments, so that in the future we should have an understanding of the control of yield in wheat. This will be important given the predicted increase in the human population.